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April 6, 1998


N Vittal

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What India needs to do to really step on
the gas on the IT superhighway

IT, that unique synthesis of computers and telecommunication, is emerging as one of the most decisive technologies of our time, one likely to have resounding impact on the Indian economy. But is India quite ready for it?

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In a global village where the competition is time-based, IT is a very powerful competitive weapon. True, we have an advantage, one that Vikram Sarabhai highlighted, that late technological bloomers like India have an advantage because they can leap forward through intermediate stages.

But, in spite of all the hoopla made about India's software exports going from 100 million dollars in 1990 to 1.6 billion dollars in 1997-98 and the fact that Indians have an edge in electronics and, particularly, computer software, these advances are very localised and a little humility is due.

What Churchill said of Atlee holds good for India too: "Attlee is a humble man and he has a lot of things to be humble about." India needs to remember that while the world average computer density is 25 computers per thousand people in India there is hardly one computer for 1000 people.

While worldwide, there are about 10 telephones for 100 people, in India there is hardly 1.6. And if we take the Internet, there are hardly 60,000 users, India being just above Mongolia and South Vietnam so far as Internet users in Asia is concerned.

Unusually, the Government showed some initiative and came out with an Internet policy. But in true bureaucratic tradition, where the left hand blocks what the right hand is doing, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India bunged as spanner in the works, placing a stay on the policy.

Yes, India has a long road ahead as far as IT is concerned, but if we use the right strategy, we can be there fast.

I would suggest three strategy models for this:

The green revolution model

The green revolution worked through the use of hybrid seeds, the efficacy of which were proved by thousands of demonstration forms. The illiterate, and cautious, farmer took to the idea and the government came with an integrated policy package covering the availability of hybrid seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, water for irrigation etc. When a bumper harvest came, there was also a price support mechanism in place.

In IT, a meta-resource, we could also consider hundreds and thousands of demonstration projects -- in education, health or employment generation or other national projects -- to sell IT to the masses and then replicate it throughout the country as the basis of a comprehensive policy.

Then the price support mechanism that will push cheaper computers. I have been pleading that we should make investment in computers eligible for 100% depreciation in the first year itself under the Income Tax Act. Leasing companies would have a fighting chance if they were offering a Rs 30,000 PC for about Rs 300 a month.

The government can give the industry a fillip by insisting that all items subject to either excise or sales tax must be bar-coded, making the accompanying technology ubiquitous.

This is necessary. Imagine the danger our banking system will face from speculators once the Indian rupee becomes fully convertible. Only 5,000 out of the 65,000 branches of Indian banks are computerised. Of course, we can rest complacent since the Tarapore committee, owing to the south-east Asian currency crisis and the prevailing swadeshi sentiment, has recommended a five-year period before full convertibility. But the fact remains that at whatever time we step into the global pool, we should have our internal support systems already in place.

The milk revolution model

Today India is the largest producer of milk in the world, thanks to the vision of Dr Kurien and political leaders like Tribhuvan Das Patel.

The milk revolution exploited the opportunity arising out of the surplus of milk in developed countries and then set up institutions in India to bring about massive change at the national level in one area.

Kurien's Amul brought modern dairy technology to India. Milk, once denigrated for its limited shelf life, suddenly gained a huge extension in life through its products.

Simultaneously, a healthy co-operative movement was set up to sustain the work, with dramatic success, particularly in Gujarat, and to a lesser extent in states like Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

Now can we think of institutional mechanisms to popularise IT? Our greatest weakness here is that 48 per cent of our people are illiterate and that just three per cent of the population speak English, the lingua franca of computers. So we will have to think massively in terms of removing illiteracy using IT's long reach.

Secondly, we should think of computer talk in Indian languages. Already, technologies like the GIST and other software exist to transliterate from English into any Indian language. But tremendous impetus has to be generated in this area so that Indians can take full advantage of the IT revolution.

The nuclear reaction model

A certain critical mass and suitable catalysts are standard requirements when one tries to harness the power of an atom.

As far as IT, India falls woefully short of critical mass. As I mentioned earlier, only 5000 out of the 65,000 bank branches have been computerised. Only 1,000 of India's 150,000 post offices are computerised. And computer density, as I also said earlier, is still nowhere near spontaneous growth.

Our strategy must be to quickly achieve critical mass, This increasing the presence and application of IT over a wide spectrum of economic activities. Once it becomes ubiquitous and necessary, IT can become an engine to propel the growth of Indian economy.

For this, we must work on the principle of enlightened self interest.

One affected party would be the IT vendors, who would have no reason for complaint if the industry flowered, NGOs working in different social sectors like education health etc would be benefited, politicians would have no reason to complain if their vote banks were provided with job opportunities, and private businesses will quickly learn that IT generates profits.

Policy makers and think tanks must also generate specific proposals to ensure the idea catches on.

I wonder whether we can use one or more of these models to develop an appropriate IT strategy to propel India into an economic superpower of the next century.

Previous columns: Critical mass | T.R.a.I | Santa Clause 11(2) | The Broadcasting Bill | The death of distance | S.O.S, getting the message out of the bottle | Force 7 from FICCI | Of railroads and info highways | Techno Politics | Cheating death: Ways to resurrect ITI | The HAM-handed miracle | Electronic governance | Which came first? | The four-engine design | Learning to learn | Heads 'n hands | Post-mortem | Where's the cash | Mr T S Eliot's digital wisdom | Banking on IT | R, R & R | Pots & Pans | The Changing Change | Reality check | Spectrum analysis | Global Slum | Rebooting democracy

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